Tuesday, February 7, 2012

474. The Killer Inside Me – Jim Thompson

History: This book was published in1952. The book is primarily a journey through a killer's mind trying to justify his actions.
Plot: The story is told through the eyes of its protagonist, Lou Ford, a 29-year-old deputy sheriff in a small Texas town. Ford appears to be a regular, small-town cop leading an unremarkable existence; beneath this facade, however, he is a cunning, depraved sociopath with sadistic sexual tastes. Ford's main outlet for his dark urges is the relatively benign habit of deliberately needling people with cliches and platitudes despite their obvious boredom: "If there's anything worse than a bore," says Lou, "it's a corny bore."
Despite having a steady girlfriend, Ford falls into a sadomasochistic relationship with a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland. Ford describes their affair as unlocking "the sickness" that has plagued him since adolescence, when he sexually abused a little girl, a crime for which his elder foster brother Mike took the blame to spare Lou from prison. After serving a jail term, Mike died on a construction site. Lou blamed a local construction magnate for Mike's death, suspecting he was murdered.
To exact revenge, Lou and Joyce blackmail the construction magnate to avoid exposing his son's affair with Joyce. However, Lou double-crosses Joyce: He ferociously batters her, and shoots the construction magnate's son, hoping to make the crimes appear to be a lovers' spat gone wrong. Ford builds a solid alibi and frames other people for the double homicide. However, to successfully frame others when the evidence starts to go against him, he has to commit additional murders. One of them is Johnny Pappas, a close friend of his. He has to murder Johnny, making it seem as if he committed suicide in jail. He also kills his fiancé, Amy.
These only increase suspicion against him however, and his mask of sanity begins to crumble under the pressure. He is eventually jailed, and sent to a mental institution. It is revealed at the end of the book, that Joyce is still alive, and he is blamed for the murders.
Review: Jim Thompson may well have been one of the most filmic writers ever to work. His books have inspired quite a number of films including Grifters, The Getaway, The Getaway (yes, I said it twice. It's been filmed twice. Once wonderfully with Steve McQueen and Allie McGraw, once terribly with Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger), Coup de Torchon, After Dark, My Sweet and to some extent From Dusk Till Dawn. He also wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's film Paths of Glory.
Thompson worked in a well worn genre. He walked the same fields as James M. Cain, Dashiel Hammet, and more recently, Elmore Leonard. Thompson wrote real tough guy fiction. In the pages of his books bad men do bad things, and are often undone by bad women (or sometimes unlucky women).
To clarify, Thompson wrote Noir. These are bedtime stories for the criminally insane. Thompson's work will appeal to people who enjoy Chinatown, The Big Sleep, American Psycho, and gritty stories that take place in dark alleys, and rain swept streets. His novels are best read by lamplight, with a glass of Jack Daniels close at hand.
The Killer Inside Me is no exception to this rule. It is the story of Lou Ford. Lou is a cop. He's not Dirty Harry. He doesn't carry a gun, or a club. But he's no Barney Fife, Either. He's a small town deputy with a problem. Lou has a dark secret. Something in his past hangs over him like a black cloud. Most people in town consider him good natured, but dull. He's the kind of person no one ever gives a second thought to. But, he has that secret. It has something to do with an unexplained death. I'd like to say more, but I don't want to give it away.
Lou has a girlfriend. She's a local girl next door type. She's a real good girl (and in this type of story, that spells trouble). He also has a little something on the side, in the parlance of our times. This second girl isn't so good. She's a rather stereotypical bad girl. This difference in Lou's two lovers creates an interesting dichotomy. It's as if these two women (who obviously satisfy different desires) represent two sides of Lou's personality. They each speak for half of him. Lou is, as it is easy to see, a man in conflict. He wants to be that dull, good natured fella, that treats everyone nicely. He has built this reputation, going so far as to treat with respect and kindness even those unfortunate criminals that he must arrest. Yet, there is a part of him that struggles for control. This is a dark part. The portion of his psyche that worries about that skeleton hidden in his closet. There is a battle going on within Lou. And considering the type of book this is, we can easily guess with side will win.
Yes. It does end in an orgy of destruction. Yes. Lou does suffer the final breakdown. The sickness, as it were, does get the better of him. Everyone around him pays in full.
That is the plot. Of course, plot isn't everything. We've all seen hundreds of stories that play out the same way. What is important here is style and substance. Thompson chooses to use a first person narrative. This places the reader squarely inside the mind of our anti-hero. We are privy to every thought, every bent intuition, every nuance of madness that streaks through Lou Ford's fevered brain. We cannot escape the twisted version of reality that Lou experiences. This fact lends an immediacy, a reality to the story that makes it hard to turn away from.
Thompson uses a tight, precise style of writing. This is characteristic of all of his novels. He does not mince words, or waste space. He keeps the reader firmly rooted within the story he needs to tell. And, there is a sense of need within the writing. It is as if Thompson is haunted by these characters, and must exorcize them by telling their story.
The quick pacing, and rapid development of the plot help to create a sense of tension that begins on the first page, and never lets up. This tension builds right up until the inevitable end. We can see the end coming. But, and this is a real strength, Thompson manages to make us wish for a different ending than the one we expect. That's right, he makes us feel empathy for Lou. We hope against hope that things can work out for him. Despite his vicious nature, despite the evil acts we have witnessed, we long for him to "get away with it". We long for the happily ever after. We should really shower, and watch a Disney movie. Dumbo, maybe. This could bring us back to the reality in which we're nice people who don't root for the villain.
The greatest strength of this book lies in the unexpected moments. Thompson is able to surprise, to elate, to transcend his genre. At one point, right in the middle, in the midst of sickness and madness, and abhorrent violence, we are treated to something different. Suddenly, and out of nowhere, Lou is musing about couples. He talks about those odd couples you see (Skinny Man/ Obese woman, Tall woman/ short man, Old man/ young woman, you get the idea). Lou thinks about how at some point these two mismatched people saw each other, and what they saw was everything they had ever wanted. This moment in the book moves beyond crime fiction. It elevates itself into the realm of literature. Not just literature, but great literature. Nobakov would have been proud of this moment. Martin Amis would kill for a moment like that. 
Opening Line: “I’d finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him.”
Closing Line: “All of us.”
Quotes: “A weed is a plant out of place.”
Rating: Very Good, but violent.

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